On the southside of Chicago, there was an AA group that met in our church’s basement once a week. One summer, I was outside the parsonage, weeding the walkway, when a man attending the meeting came out to drink his coffee and have a smoke. He stood there for a while, watching me weed. Then he asked, “Why can’t the church be more like AA?” It didn’t sound like an accusation. Just an honest question. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, the times I’ve gone to church, everyone pretends they’ve got all their **** together and that really makes it hard.” “Hard?” I asked. “Yeah, to connect, you know. Be real… about what’s happening in your life.”

His question has stuck with me all these years. Why can’t people in the Church be real about who they are and about what is happening in their lives? To do that would make it much easier for people to connect. In fact, to do that would make it much easier to see Jesus and what Jesus is doing in our midst.

In a strange way, I think our reading from Matthew’s gospel addresses this man’s concern.

The disciples have misunderstood the Kingdom of God. Jesus has just predicted His passion (17:22-23) and they ask Him a question that reveals their utter ignorance of what His rule and reign are all about. They ask Him about greatness. “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” (18:1). The disciples are trying to follow Jesus and yet their minds are consumed with questions about status, power, and position. They are concerned about greatness.

The disciples are trying to follow Jesus and yet their minds are consumed with questions about status, power, and position. They are concerned about greatness.

Unfortunately, this problem has not gone away. I have known congregations where questions of greatness lurk in the background, confusing people about why they do what they do.

When you are concerned about who is the greatest, almost any good activity can be misunderstood and misused. Worship and bible class attendance become a way of defining one’s status in a congregation, not about hearing God’s Word and receiving the Sacrament. “So, you go to service on Saturday night… I’m tempted to do that. It would let me have Sunday morning to myself… but, you know, I just couldn’t miss bible class. So, do you go to bible class during the week?” Offerings, fundraisers, mission trips, sending your children to a Lutheran school, even something as simple as how one dresses or engages in worship becomes more about the person doing it than about the activity that is done.

In such a church, everyone is concerned about making a good impression. And they do. Sunday after Sunday, God’s people appear to have it all together… which makes you wonder why Jesus even continues to come. After all, everything is great among God’s people here.

But that is why Jesus does come (to the disciples then and to our churches now) to set the record straight. In this extended conversation with His disciples, Jesus changes how we think about greatness in the Kingdom of God.

Earlier in the gospel, Jesus was asked why He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He answered that He did not come to call the righteous but sinners (9:13). Call them to what? Into His kingdom. Jesus has come to save people from their sins (1:21). Therefore, wherever Jesus is doing His work, you will find Him surrounded by sinners.

Wherever Jesus is doing His work, you will find Him surrounded by sinners.

The Church then and now is where God gathers sinners around His saving Word and work. Imagine how strange it would be to stand among sinners and ask, “Who is the greatest?” That would be like going into an AA meeting and asking, “Who is the greatest in this room?” Would you ask that question in a homeless shelter, or in an intensive care unit? There are times and places in this world where questions about greatness are out of place, and the Church is one of them. Because Jesus has come to call sinners and will go to the cross to save them, it does not make sense to try and figure out who is the greatest. When you are on a mission of mercy, the greatest person is the one with the greatest need.

In a sense, that is what Jesus reveals in His response. Rather than celebrate greatness, Jesus calls His disciples to reconsider how they regard themselves (vv. 7-9) and others (vv. 5-6 and 10-20) as they participate in His mission of mercy.

In regard to self, Jesus calls His disciples to humble themselves, admit their sin, and radically recognize the self-denial of living in the Kingdom of God. The Church is not about celebrating self-fulfillment but rather confessing sin and depending on God’s grace. Greatness rests not in our actions that qualify us for God’s kingdom but in God’s actions to those who are not fit for His love.

In regard to others, one suddenly begins to see everyone else as more important than oneself. Those who are lost are sought out. Those persistently sinning are persistently sought, not just for gaining a confession but for reconciliation and renewal of community.

Questions of greatness can get us into trouble, but questions of grace lead us to reevaluate our actions both in the Church and in the world. The Church of Jesus is a very different kind of community. People come in not to celebrate their success but to confess their failures and celebrate God’s love in Christ toward them. People go out not to make a name for themselves but to seek the lost and bring the erring brother or sister back in the name of Christ.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 18:1-20.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 18:1-20.

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 18:1-20.